Department of Geography and Resource Management (GRM), The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Research Projects

More data, better governance? The central-local politics of environmental data in China

Prof. CHUNG King Lam, Calvin

China’s central government has struggled to arrest urban environmental problems through imposing environmental targets on its growth-minded local leaders. Exploiting the existing bottom-up environmental monitoring system, local leaders have reported falsified environmental data to conceal their failures in target compliance. To address this data muddle, since 2015, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment has been constructing a nationwide Ecological and Environmental Monitoring Network (EEMN) under its direct control. The EEMN involves recentralising the management of locally-run environmental monitoring stations and expanding the use of digital technologies in environmental data collection and analysis. The Ministry hopes that, with its environmental monitoring capacity enhanced by the EEMN, its power in environmental regulation can be strengthened. Despite its significance, the EEMN has not been researched for its impacts on central-local relations in urban environmental governance.

Supported by the Early Career Scheme of the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong, this project applies the perspective of urban data politics, which stresses that data and their embedded urban social conditions are mutually constituted, to China’s urban environmental governance. It challenges the commonly held view that ‘more data leads to better urban governance’, promoted by recent enthusiasm for smart city, by drawing attention to the political nature of data: they are never neutral reflections of urban realities but purposefully produced by different actors to promote certain urban futures. It argues that, as epitomised by the development of the EEMN, environmental governance of Chinese cities is a function of struggles between the central and local governments over environmental data collection and analysis.

Focusing on the construction and implications of the EEMN in Shenzhen and Guiyang, this project will analyse how changes in environmental data collection and analysis may reshape China’s central-local relations in urban environmental governance. It will identify the changes introduced by the EEMN in environmental monitoring and the resultant improvements on environmental data, with attention to the challenges involved in realising such changes. It will also examine how the EEMN-related changes in environmental monitoring have provoked changes in environmental governance institutions, in terms of the instruments, incentives and capacities of central and local state agents in environmental governance, noting that new environmental data demands may in turn emerge. Based on these findings, this project will advance a new analytical framework on the ‘central-local politics of environmental data’ to clarify the centrality of data in the struggles around urban environmental governance in China.